Instinct and Laughter

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Instinct and Laughter

Leo Bassi and the political mission of clowning

Leo Bassi interviewed by Jenny Patschovsky

Leo Bassi, holding a pair of scissors, comes down from the stage to walk amongst the audience. “Today is your chance to make a statement to the world, today one of you could be a hero” he says. He is looking for somebody to stand up and let him cut the label out of their clothing. He builds the tension in the room, people are scared that he will choose one of them, and that peer pressure won’t allow them to refuse his wish to destroy their expensive shirt. One man stands up. Everybody cheers for him. This is his big moment to show the world how to behave. Bassi cuts the small sports company logo out of the t-shirt. Some applaud the action; others feel very uneasy about what is happening…

Coming from a very old traditional circus family you performed juggling and Antipodism as a young man. When and above all why, did you decide to leave this path to become a political activist with clowning?

It was when I was 26, 27. I was in a BBC show called The Good Old Days, a very famous show, where old variety and circus acts were presented like in 1900. I was very happy to be on TV. And then I realized while I was performing that I was part of nostalgia. I was 26, 27 years old, but I was being used to talk about the past, the old circus world. But at 26 I did not want to be nostalgia. I was proud of being a fantastic foot juggler, an Antipodist. I was brought up with the idea that this is what working class people did to surprise people. But then I realized that this was not at all my world. I was working for old age people that were thinking about the past. And so, a few weeks after the show, I decided to not work in circus anymore, not to work in variety anymore, and only to work in the street and reach out to a new audience. The audience of people of my age or younger, and for the working class. And that’s when I realized that this was not a problem of aesthetic, but it was a problem of politics, that we the circus artists had forgotten our mission as a political statement for working class people. We had become nostalgia for children. We had lost the real meaning of things. And I asked myself “What should I be doing as a working-class person? How could I be free? What should I fight?” And very fast I started to see that there were big problems. That the world is not as democratic as it seems. That we are being controlled continuously everywhere. That things had to be broken. And to reaffirm the pride of being working class, the idea of democracy is that we are all the same, and not that the rich people have more rights than the poor people. From that moment it was clear that I had a mission in life and that I could use my clowning experience to say these things. And it is maybe more powerful than just being reasonable and speaking about it. To surprise people with strange things as my family had always done. And with the real circus meaning behind this freedom, the idea of being free.

Perhaps the strongest stereotype of a clown is the red nose. Why do you rarely perform with a red nose?

I can remember when I was 6 or 7 years old, my grandmother asked me “Do you know why clowns put red noses on?” And she explained it to me. A long time ago in the 19th century, people got drunk all the time. The underclass, the workers drunk, and they threw up on the pavement. The rich people looked at them and said: ‘Ooohh! But there were reasons to get drunk. There were reasons to be poor. It’s easy not to be drunk when you’re rich; it’s less easy when you’re working 18 hours a day working so that these high-class people could have good shoes, good things. That’s why the clown has a red nose to be on the side of the drunks, to be on the side of the poor. He took the side of the people who felt bad, who were not doing well, and he made them proud. That’s also why the clowns had very colourful garments and big shoes. Only rich people could have shoes made to measure, the poor people usually got handed down shoes, and the best was to get a big shoe and then put newspaper in it. What does humour do? It multiplies this by five. Instead of having the shoes just a little bit bigger, the clown has enormous shoes and even more colourful clothes, and he is proud of it. And in his pride, he also enables the audience to be proud, despite their poverty. So, when I see the new clowns that are using this but are looking for some aesthetic form of mystic poetry, it’s missing the point. It isn’t touching the real thing. The real thing was to go against hypocrisy, go against the injustices in our present society. Still there are people who are too rich and people who are too poor. Today like a hundred years ago we have the same problems, but the reality is different. Every generation has its style of comedy. And I don’t think that young people today should be nostalgic We must not be nostalgic. Nostalgia is something wrong.

What do you think has changed in clown over the last 50 years?

Every period in history has had its clowning. There is not the one shape of clowning. We adapt constantly and the laughter is always there. I am sure that 5000 years ago people were laughing with their problems. And today we have other problems. The world has changed, and the style of clowning has changed, but not the meaning. And this is a little bit of a problem I’ve seen with New Circus that it has become a style of clowning, but there was no style of clowning. Every generation created it new. The clowns with the red noses and all this did not exist 200 years ago. It was about 150 years ago that somebody put on a red nose. The clowning can be what you want it to be. It can be makeup, but it can also be what I was doing for many years, dressed as a businessman. This was my well-known image. I had a black suit, white shirt, tie, glasses. Dressed as a banker with the idea that I could make fun of the banking people, make fun of politicians, and make them look fools. Traditionally, clown costumes accentuate what is stupid about humanity. The style is different, but the meaning is traditional. This again is an idea of a working class fighting against a higher class and power. I am not limited by the idea of what circus is and what it is not. There are two things: There is the spirit, and there is the convention. Every generation uses the spirit, but you must have the spirit. I have sometimes seen a person who is dressed like the clown but has not the spirit. It’s not the style, it’s the spirit. And the spirit is about fighting against hypocrisy and feeling that humour is a very, very good weapon.

How is the clown present in your offstage life?

I am a very serious person. I think that behind clowning there’s a lot of thinking. I very much consider myself a journalist in a certain way. I love getting information and I use this information to make jokes. Perhaps my most successful project is my church dedicated to plastic ducks, and with clowns as priests. This church is very small but has had a very big impact. We are celebrating mass; we are marrying people. We do all the services of a church. We even do funerals. That is borne of the idea that I wanted to get back to rituals. Not doing entertainment or things that are understood intellectually but getting people excited. And in my latest show Yo, Mussolini I am doing Mussolini. We have a strong right wing in Italy and in Spain. People are coming back. What can we do? The good thing to do is to make jokes about it. And who could be more fascist than Benito Mussolini, who invented fascism? My desire of clowning gets me right back into the costume of Benito Mussolini. I have performed in Rome doing Mussolini and with the right wing Giorgia Meloni government. I have been all over Spain doing this with a lot of Francoist people still there. And now we will be working in Germany this year in different places where the Alternative für Deutschland is very present at the moment. So, Mussolini comes back, and I think it’s more funny than coming up with a red nose and doing clowning.

Why do you think the art of clowning is a suitable tool for dealing with political issues?

It is about instincts and laughter. Humour can be very powerful. Wars are based on instincts. And laughter is based on instincts. This is what we are using. We are touching the same levels of things. A war is to destroy the instinct of the other person. Laughter is to boost the instinct of the other person. If you make somebody laugh, you make this person feel good and you open his or her instincts. This is the contrary to what a war does. Wars smash the instinct. I am doing my profession as a mission. The mission of saying out loud what the working class and the smaller people think. Things that the people who are in power decided are not allowed to be said.

How do you reach those people who are not close to your world view, who won’t come to your shows, i.e. those who you criticise?

I’ve been living in Spain for 25 years, and I’m very well known in Spain. I am so well known that my enemies, the very hard right-wing people have put bombs in the theatre where I was performing and in my church. My church was burned down in 2016. So, I am touching people. The impact must be strong if they want to kill me and if they want to burn my things down. It’s a good measure of the impact that I have. That means I’m quite successful, and on the other hand, I have a very strong a fan base. Many people know me.

You have also taken part in actions of Clowns Without Borders. How do these experiences affect you, how do they come back on stage?

You get back with a deeper feeling of what you are doing. You feel the world of instincts that you are touching, things that are very powerful. I think when you go to work with refugees or go to work in war zones you understand a lot. It makes you stronger. And it makes you understand the power of humour. When a soldier comes along and puts a gun up and says, “you get out of here”, it makes you feel that what you’re doing is important. It can be seen as something aggressive or as a menace. The guy is heavily armed with a machinegun, and you are just dressed as a clown. He needs to protect his ideas with a machinegun against jokes. So, you come back with a much deeper feeling of what you are doing, and you connect to the real reason of what clowns are. In Germany, I am currently observing a wave of new interest in clown. What advice do you have for those who are searching for their way? Listen to your instincts to make people laugh. But to make other people laugh, you have to know what other people love, why they love it and what they need. Don’t do clown for yourself. One of the worst things I’ve seen is clown as self-therapy to discover your inner self. Clowning is to reach out to people. Look at who you want to make laugh. Try and understand what the world of the people is about. You must enter their world and when you are in, then use your instincts, your creativity to make fun, to make laugh. I am now 71 years old and it’s a fantastic life. I still feel that I am at the beginning. Clown is a slow process. Don’t worry, things work out for themselves. Be sincere and honest. There is no limitation. Anything can be funny. There are absolutely no rules. And I don’t think there are really any schools for that. Clowning is an explosion of life. There’s something good about life in this energy, its liberating things. Maybe the first real joke was the Big Bang. Before everything existed, things were so serious. It was so boring that something came along and said, we’re going to shake things up a bit and make a joke.

What interests you at the moment?

I’m interested in getting back to the ritual, the fascination of watching something, of being part of something. It’s not an intellectual feeling, but a primitive and a very deep feeling. I live outside of Madrid in the mountains. I have bought some land around here, and I am creating a kind of Stonehenge, with big rocks. I want to investigate what was a ritual when you had no buildings, when there were no tents, when you were outside and when you had stones. So, I’m building a big area of stones, and that is my kind of sacred. The project is still in construction, and it will take maybe six months more and we will start doing events there. Neolithic circus.

That sounds exciting. Thank you very much for the interview.

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